Don’t Cut Off the Species (Human or Otherwise) – Emor 5779

In 1598, Dutch sailors landed on the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.  There, they discovered a creature that no human being had ever before seen.  They named the bird the Dodo.  Poor bird.  With such a name, you know it was doomed from the start.

The Dodo was not particularly fast, and it was incapable of flying.  Apparently, it was also rather tasty.  A hungry sailor, without much difficulty, could easily catch a Dodo and roast it up nice and juicy. Imported animals like pigs, dogs, and rats found that Dodo eggs made for a scrumptious snack, and were easy to steal out of the nest.

Within a few decades, the Dodo was no more.  It has since become the most famous extinct animal on the planet.  I suspect it might have something to do with the name.

It serves as a cautionary tale.  The Dodo’s range was limited to the small island of Mauritius, so it literally had nowhere else to go.  Human greed, lack of compassion, and absence of foresight led to the disappearance of this strange bird.

There are categories of Jewish law that address these character deficiencies.  The laws of Bal Tashchit prohibit us from using up resources wastefully.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, means the “suffering of living creatures,” and refers to commandments protecting animals from unnecessary suffering. These and other areas of Jewish law have their roots in the Torah.  One of the important sources of Jewish law regulating how we treat animals appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor.

Most of the parashah focuses on rules for the priests.  After describing special privileges as well as limitations on their behavior, God gives Moses instructions pertaining to animals that are brought by Israelites as sacrifices.  In the midst of these regulations, we read the following commandment:

וְשׁ֖וֹר אוֹ־שֶׂ֑ה אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִשְׁחֲט֖וּ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.  (Lev. 22:28)

This verse seems fairly straightforward.  Most commentators connect this passage to another passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.  (Deut: 22:6-7)

Both passages address the relationship between an animal and its offspring.  In this morning’s parashah, the focus is on herd and flock animals.  In Deuteronomy, the focus is on bird eggs or fledglings that one may find in a nest.  For both commandments, the Torah offers no explanation or rationale.

Maimonides, the great medieval Rabbi, physician, and community leader, sees in these commandments a lesson about compassion.  He focuses on the emotional pain of the mother.

“There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes, “since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. If the Torah provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be to not cause grief to our fellow men.”  (Guide for the Perplexed III:48)

In other words, the Torah commands us to consider the emotional suffering of all living creatures.  Even though we are permitted to consume meat, we still must be concerned with the suffering of animals.  It is noteworthy that he does not hold that we should be merciful towards animals exclusively for their own sake.  Maimonides is ultimately concerned with the cultivation of character.  Compassion for animals is important because it conditions us to be compassionate towards our fellow human beings.

Nachmanides, living shortly after Maimonides, has great respect for his predecessor.  He quotes him often, although usually it is to disagree with his explanations. Nachmanides claims that both commandments are meant to discourage us from having a cruel and unforgiving heart.

Then he continues.  Even though we are permitted to eat meat, provided that we slaughter the animal correctly, the Torah does not permit us to be so destructive as to destroy the species.  When a person kills the mother and her offspring on the same day, or takes the eggs or fledglings without first sending away the mother bird, it is as if that person has cut off the entire species.  (Nachmanides on Deut. 22:7)

What a radical statement!  Slaughtering two generations of an animal on the same day, from a symbolic standpoint, is like eradicating the species.

I am pretty sure that the concept of species eradication was not on people’s minds in thirteenth century Spain.  For Nachmanides to bring it up is surprising.

Like Maimonides, Nachmanides is still mainly focused on the harmful effects that such a destructive action has on a person’s character.  If God was truly concerned with animals, why would we be allowed to eat them in the first place, and why would God have commanded that we offer them as sacrifices?  The Torah’s concern with animal suffering, or with species extinction, is ultimately about the harmful impact that such callous behavior has on the human soul. Nevertheless, Nachmanides seems to be aware that species extinction is a problem, and that human beings have an important role as caretakers of the earth which, after all, belongs to God.

Today, we are very much aware that species can become extinct through human carelessness and callousness – and not just symbolically.  Just look at the Dodo.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations issued a chilling report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  It was the most comprehensive study of its kind.  Species are now going extinct at a rate between 10 and 100 times greater than the average over the past 10 million years, and the rate is increasing.  Out of the approximately 8 million species of plants and animals on earth, one million are at risk of extinction in the coming decades as a direct result of humanity’s impact on the planet.  

The report pointed to five primary ways that human activity has produced these deteriorations in ecosystems.  They are, starting with the greatest impact: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

The Chair of the committee, Sir Robert Watson, warned: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.  We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

In other words, if we take a human-centered approach (like Maimonides and Nachmanides), the harm that we have caused to the global environment puts humanity at risk.

He goes on to say that all hope is not gone  “…it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global…  Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.  By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

We have a lot of work to do.

Jewish law does not typically make broad, sweeping pronouncements upon entire industries.  It does not prescribe government regulations, nor does it make specific pronouncements about how to balance economic growth with sustainability.  

Jewish law tends to focus on the specific case before the individual.  It is concerned with the measurable impacts of a person’s behavior.  But Judaism does have something to say more generally about our relationship to the Earth, and our responsibility to the living things that call it home.

Nachmanides looked at the Torah’s prohibitions against slaughtering two generations of animals on the same day, and declared it to be the symbolic equivalent to species extinction.  

What would he say about the ways in which we consume the planet’s bounties today?  Or about the impact that human expansion has on waterways and forests?  Or how the pollution that is dumped into the air, water and ground when resources are extracted threatens the survival of indigenous plants and animals?

He might say that it comes down to how each of us consumes the resources of our planet.  We know that the impact of human progress extends way beyond what we see right in front of us.  We also know that the risk of species extinction is not merely symbolic.  We should not pretend otherwise.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand.

Psalms declares “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell within it.”  With the knowledge that we now have, can we say that our behavior, as a species, honors this sentiment?

What would it look like to live in a global society that honored the earth as belonging to God, and recognized that we are one of millions of species that depend on it to thrive?

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

Make Each Day “Complete” – Emor 5776

This morning’s Torah portion includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars.  After introducing Shabbat, it then describes the biblical holidays beginning with Passover.  In the process, it describes the period of time in which we currently find ourselves, the omer.

An omer is a sheaf of grain.  Imagine a field full of stalks of grain.  To get an omer, one would tie a bunch of them together and then chop the stalks off at the base.

The Torah commands Israelite farmers to bring the first omer of the new harvest to the Priest in the Temple so that he can make a special wave offering to God.  After that, Israelite farmers are allowed to consume grain from the new crop.  The omer offering took place on the second night of Passover.

After describing this ritual, the Torah then tells us to start counting.

You will count for yourselves on the day after the sabbath – from the day on which you bring the omer for waving – seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.  Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count fifty days…  (Lev. 23:15-16)

The Torah’s language is somewhat unusual: Sheva shabatot t’mimot ti-h’yenah – “seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.”  What does the Torah mean by saying t’mimot – “complete?”

The medieval commentator Rashi emphasizes the numerical aspect of “complete,” and cites the halakhic, or Jewish legal, interpretation.  “The counting must begin in the evening, for otherwise the weeks would not be complete.”  (Rashi on Lev. 23:15)  The Torah is very precise.  If it tells us to count seven complete weeks, then we have got to make sure to acknowledge every single day.

In Judaism, the day begins at night.  Therefore, the mitzvah of counting the omer is at nighttime, that is to say, as early as possible once the new day begins.

The ritual begins with a b’rakhah, a blessing acknowledging that the action we are about to perform is a mitzvah, a commandment.  Then, we count the new day, using the particular “omer counting formula.”

What happens if I forget to count at night?  Jewish law is very precise.  If I remember the next day, I should count during the day day without reciting the b’rakhah, since I missed the opportunity to do it at the proper time.  Then, that night, I can resume by reciting the b’rakhah and continuing the count.

If I forget entirely for a full 24 hour period, I can no longer count the omer with the b’rakhah, even at night.  Since the Torah says to count “seven complete sabbaths,” the opportunity has been lost.  There are no do-overs.  I am out of the omer game.

Every year, it is a challenge to stay in the omer game.  It is surprisingly difficult to remember every single day.  And the stakes are high, because if I miss even once, I’m out.  So far this year, thank God, I’m still in.

So, it is daytime – not the time to count with a b’rakhah.  This will be a repetition for those who remembered to count last night.  Please repeat after me:

Hayom shmonah v’esrim yom, she’hem arba’ah shavuot la-omer.

Today is the eight and twentieth day, being four weeks of the omer.

Is the omer just a game of memory and persistence?  If it is a game, there must be a prize.  It’s a good one.  At the end of seven complete weeks, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot when we re-enact the revelation at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.

With such a holy and ancient prize, we would expect there to be a little more to the omer game than simply trying not to get kicked out of it.

A midrash notes something peculiar about the way that the Torah describes the requirement to count the omer.  It does not use the typical Hebrew word for “complete.”  Normally, if I wanted to say seven whole weeks, I would say sheva shabatot sheleimot.  The word shalem means “whole” or “complete.”  It is related to the word shalom for “peace.”

The word in our verse is t’mimot, or tamim in the singular.  This word adds an additional dimension.

In an ancient midrash, “Rabbi Hiyya taught: seven sabbaths, complete they shall be – when are they complete?” he asks.  “When Israel fulfills God’s will.”  (Leviticus Rabbah 28:3)

The word tamim has two typical uses in the Torah.  One is to describe animals without blemishes which are brought as sacrifices to God in the Temple.  The other is to describe people, who themselves have no moral defects.  They are blameless, or complete in their character.

The Torah says about Noah: tamim hayah b’dorotav – “Blameless he was in his generation.”  (Gen. 5:9)  God instructs Abraham: hit’halekh l’fanai ve’h’yeh tamim – “walk before Me and be blameless.”  (Gen. 17:1)

Thus, tamim implies complete in quality rather than in quantity.  Given this additional aspect, what does it mean to count seven “complete” weeks – or rather, seven “blameless” weeks?

One commentator suggests that the period of the omer, that is to say, the period between our freedom from Egypt and our receiving the Torah, offers us a unique spiritual opportunity.

“And you shall count for yourselves” implies introspection and stock-taking in order to choose the true good… just as one carefully examines the amount and integrity of the money he receives so as to avoid deficient or counterfeit coins, thus also when counting the seven weeks he must make sure to complete the number, and preserve the quality of each day, that they may not detract from spiritual integrity… Hence the expression t’mimut which refers to spiritual integrity.  (HaKtav VeHaKabbalah, citing Rabbi Shelomo Pappenheim)

I had a low quality day this week, a day on which I felt completely unproductive.  I just couldn’t get focused, couldn’t accomplish anything.  It was not a day on which I felt that I had fulfilled God’s will – despite the fact that I had recited the blessing and counted the omer the night before.

I imagine we all have days like this from time to time.  The period of the omer, as we prepare ourselves spiritually to receive the Torah, offers us a special opportunity and a challenge to, as Rabbi Hiyya puts it, fulfill God’s will.

How does one count each day?  By making each day count.

Today is the twenty eighth day of the omer.  For the remaining days – I’ll let you do the math to figure out how many there are – let’s commit to making each day count.  Every day, let’s commit ourselves to perform one quality action that will be a fulfillment of God’s will.

Give to tzedakha.  Study the Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat.  Invite someone to Shabbat dinner.  Reach out to a person whom you know is going through a difficult time.  Volunteer.

Each day offers us a new opportunity to be tamim, to be complete.

 

Bibliography: Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vaykira, Vol. 2